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Sharing a world both clean and not

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It's odd that COVID-19, which has reportedly claimed 11,961 Australian lives and 6.4 million globally, has largely become a non-issue post-federal election and pre-Victorian state election.

Politicians listen to and then reject advice from healthcare experts. Some of the re-emerging masses of commuters choose not to wear masks despite them being mandated on public transport.

Shoulders are shrugged at the news of yet another family member, friend, neighbour or workmate who is ‘off the mark’ now, suffering through various COVID symptoms with their first, second or even third infection. It is easy to become numb to the staggering statistics that ABC News presents us with each day.

Vaccines have come and gone as a much-vaunted source of salvation. We know that vaccines help as well as how severely we are impacted if we become infected. But we also know that vaccines are not a silver bullet against the virus.

We recognise the possibility of re-infection with COVID, even as we suffer through a disturbingly virulent flu season — the worst in a decade, according to a phlegmatic friend of mine who is a pharmacist in Melbourne. Re-infection is perhaps no longer seen as a grim prospect for vaccinated folks:

Just as seatbelts and airbags in cars save many lives, but don’t prevent injury in all car accidents, vaccines help prevent serious disease and death from COVID-19 in the great majority of cases, but not every single case. All of the vaccines available in Australia are proven to prevent hospitalisations from COVID-19 in 71–98 per cent of COVID-19 cases. Reducing severe illness and death so significantly means that, for most vaccinated people, being reinfected with COVID-19 will be a mild and short-lived event.

The rhetoric is reassuring, but the fact is we don’t fully know the long-term side effects of the disease or potentially, the vaccines. And more recent research has found that, with repeated infections, the risk of experiencing ‘long COVID’ actually increases, with its debilitating impact on multiple organs and systems and its potential to persist for many months.


Our complacency misses the rather sharpish end of the stick: COVID is close to taking pole position as the leading cause of death in Australia; Menzies Health Institute Queensland professor Nigel McMillan thinks we aren’t taking it seriously enough:

It will outpace cardiac coronary heart disease by the end of the year if we keep going at this rate … We haven't had an infectious disease be the number one cause of death in 120 years, so if that's not enough for people to realise this is serious then I don't know what is. The case fatality rate — that is, the number of people who die per 100 — has dropped from 3 per cent to 0.1 [per cent], our medical interventions are working and people kind of consider it less serious, [but] this virus keeps changing on us.

When facing a complex and frightening reality, we can too readily grasp for reassurance and easy answers. COVID fatigue and complacency can set in, with people becoming increasingly lax in following health mandates. Debate that may or may not be founded in the scientific research can become heated and distressing.  


'Research last year suggested the impact of COVID, while felt more strongly by more vulnerable cohorts, had not yet broken us asunder.'


Although I have chosen to be vaccinated, I am not wanting to push any particular barrow. Instead, I am concerned that the COVID-19 toll and the nastiest cold and flu season we have seen for a while, not to mention the looming threat of Monkeypox, could bring about further social divisions in Australia.

Yuval Noah Harari, in his seminal 2015 work Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind, notes:

Throughout history, and in almost all societies, concepts of pollution and purity have played a leading role in enforcing social and political divisions and have been exploited by numerous ruling classes to maintain their privileges.

The fear of pollution … probably has its roots in biological survival mechanisms that make humans feel an instinctive revulsion towards potential disease carriers, such as sick persons and dead bodies. If you want to keep any human group isolated — women, Jews, Roma, gays, blacks — the best way to do it is convince everyone that these people are a source of pollution.

Does this raise alarm bells for you, or do you dismiss it as alarmism?

Challenging events such as a global pandemic tend to expose deficits in social cohesion and to exacerbate social inequalities at all levels of society: household, community, local, regional and national. Research last year suggested the impact of COVID, while felt more strongly by more vulnerable cohorts, had not yet broken us asunder:

The interviews indicate social cohesion has not been broken by the pandemic. There was no evidence of widespread tensions in communities, of conflict or the ongoing targeting of members of certain cultural communities … But the interviews brought out differences in the experiences and ability to cope between different cohorts in the community. Women felt particular impacts (for example, in general they had greater responsibility for home schooling) and children were affected by reduced social contact, which had implications for their development. Parents with poor English had barriers helping their children, and those with poor literacy felt helpless in dealing with home schooling. Refugees and asylum seekers experienced a greater psychological impact.

Let’s hope social cohesion continues to cohere in coming months. We will, for example, be the poorer for further demonising those who choose to abstain from vaccination. We tread a fine line between asking and mandating for people’s cooperation; this is especially so for our leaders in an election year.

Pope John Paul II once suggested that a society will be ‘judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members’ such as the ‘unborn and the dying’. Every family member, friend, employee, boss, workmate, congregant and neighbour deserves our respect, kindness and compassion during these challenging times; this is particularly true for groups in society that are often overlooked: refugees, those who do not speak English, those on low-incomes. 

History has repeatedly shown us that what gets us through a crisis, what helps us to recover and rebuild, is responding to it with prosocial behaviour. Working together, starting with our communities at the local level, and from there building mutually supportive relationships across every level of society.




Barry Gittins is a Melbourne writer.

Main image: People in Bondi Junction. (Jenny Evans/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Covid, Pandemic, Social Cohesion



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Existing comments

The ABC in particular and other media outlets in general are largely responsible for the appalling and mentally debilitating paranoia which has developed around Covid. Notwithstanding it is yet another health concern, the sooner we stop catastrophising, learn to live with it, and wind back (as is being done) the extreme responses with their massive financial and mental health impacts the better. And I offer this view as a 77 year-old ranked in the higher at-risk group

JOHN QUILTY | 05 August 2022  

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